The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: ”Take advantage of five matters before five other matters: your youth before you become old; your health, before you fall sick; your wealth, before you become poor; your free time before you become preoccupied, and your life, before your death.” (Narrated by Ibn Abbas in the Mustadrak of Hakim & Musnad Imam Ahmad. Sahih)
The scholars regard this as one of the core hadiths of the religion as it spurs one to right action in so many different life circumstances. It contains two key principles with respect to Islam’s approach to time management: a sense of urgency to our life and expressing thanks for our blessings.
The whole language of this hadith points to the limited nature of our life and how time is running out. In Surah al-Rahman, verse 26, Allah (Subhanahu Wa’Tala) beautifully states ”Kullu man alaiyha faan” (All that is on earth will perish); describing the essential reality that every moment that passes is a moment that brings our death closer; our lifespan is like an upturned sand-timer and the last grain could drop soon. So the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) reminds us to act quickly before old age, before sickness, before our money decreases, before we get too busy and before our death. In other words, we must act now before it’s too late.
This links to the second principle of shukr, or gratefulness. Each one of the five matters are five blessings of the highest magnitude: youth(which Arabs have traditionally defined as less than 40!), health, wealth, free time and life itself. Allah, Most Glorious, has informed us of the secret of keeping and indeed increasing our blessings: “If you are grateful, I shall certainly give you increase” (Qur’an 14:7). How then do we give thanks for these blessings? Beyond thanking Allah regularly with our tongues, scholars explain that true gratefulness is to “use the blessing for what they were intended for” or as Junayd al-Baghdadi (May Allah have mercy on him) explained at a mere seven years of age: “That one not disobey Allah using the blessings He has given.” So, for instance, we should spend our youth in seeking beneficial knowledge; our wealth in sadaqa; our energy to worship Allah more.
The last two matters mentioned in the hadith relate directly to time management. Our free time is what we have left to work with. In Surah al-Inshirah (94:7), an oft-recited verse, ”fa iza faraghta fa-nsab”, Allah commands us: ‘So when you are free, toil on [in worship]!’ After a hard day’s work in the office, kitchen or school our first inclination is to rest. Yet the Prophet((peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), who had more responsibilities and hard work than many of us put together, was commanded to ‘toil on’. This is why we read of his long hours of Salah in the night to the extent that his feet swelled.
I remember a scholar once criticizing the Western work culture of counting the hours to 5 P.M., the days to the weekend and the weeks to the holidays. As a teacher, I can attest that in my profession we are accustomed to constantly counting down till the holidays! However, for the Muslim, whether it is the evening/morning, work-day/holiday, weekday/weekend, our goal and purpose for every moment should be to worship Allah in the best way possible. When we’re at work, we’re happy to work for the sake of Allah; when we’re home we’re happy to worship Allah. No doubt this is how the early Muslims, the scholars and the pious from every generation lived. I live next door to a local Imam and I can tell you that when he’s not at work with his wife teaching at the madrasa, he’s at home teaching Hifz to his children. Though you and I may be far from such incredible striving, we can at least ensure that a portion of each night is reserved for toiling in worship. Many Islamic leaders recommend even a few rakahs of Tahajjud before Fajr comes in. By devoting at least a small portion of each night, after our day’s work, to worship we can hope that our life, the fifth and final blessing mentioned in the hadith, is not wasted.